Story and Photos by Dana Benner
A few months ago, prior to the lockdown caused by the pandemic, my friend Stan asked me to take a look at an old knife that he had found while doing some renovations on his house. He wasn’t sure what he had found, so he asked me to take a look at it. If nothing else, Stan wanted to know if I could bring the old blade back to working condition.
Before I committed to anything, I needed to take a good look at the knife.
The knife that was handed to me was truly unique. It has an overall length of 18 inches, with the blade measuring 12 inches. The width of the spine is 1/16th inch. The handle is made of hardwood and is in good shape, though it does show signs of constant use. This knife is heavy, weighing 10 ounces (I weighed it twice to make sure I was reading it correctly).
My first thought was that this was a homemade knife, but to make sure I searched all over for any maker’s marks. I didn’t find any, so there is a good bet that my first hunch was correct.
Whoever made this knife did a good job. The blade is extremely straight and seemed to be made from a piece of plate steel (a common material found on rural farms of the early 1900s). The tip of the blade was cut at a downward sloping angle – which tells me that the knife was a chopper.
With its weight and design, my thoughts were leaning towards this knife being some sort of machete, although the handle design didn’t fit the bill. Like the rest of the knife, the handle was handmade, but its design was more like a kitchen knife than that of a machete. Now I was perplexed.
The blade did have some rust, which I would expect, but it was not as bad as some knives that I have worked on. Further inspection did reveal some very minor damage, but not the damage I normally see when a knife is used for field work. Instead the damage was consistent with a knife used to butcher animals around the homestead. The small nicks in the blade were consistent with it coming into contact with bone. So, I asked Stan to tell me exactly where he had found the knife.
Stan’s home is an old farmhouse and while he was doing some work on the inside, near where the kitchen is, he found the knife tucked into the wall. Now my interest was really peaked. How did this knife get there and why? What was it used for?
I pulled the knife off the shelf and held it – feeling its weight and balance. Its worn handle fit perfectly in my hand. The project became more than just restoring a knife, there was a story to be told here.
My first two questions were pretty easy to figure out. In many old homes the walls were finished bit by bit, when money and supplies were available. Often the spaces between the wall studs were used to store things. That is probably what happened here, the knife was simply forgotten when the wall was finally finished.
To answer the third question, and to find out more, I needed to start digging into the history of the house.
Stan and his wife bought the house back in 1976 from the estate of the original owners. The property, on which the house was built in 1929, was once a good-sized working farm where crops were grown, and livestock was raised. Today there is little left of the original farmland.
The original family consisted of 11 people – nine children and the parents. Attached to the back of the house was an addition that served as the kitchen for the growing family. This also happens to be where the modern kitchen is today and the general area where the knife was found.
Beneath the kitchen was a root cellar, which had been incorporated into the overall basement by the time Stan bought the home. Despite this, in the area of the basement under the kitchen – where the old root cellar was – Stan found very old canning jars and wooden storage bins that were once used to store root crops like carrots, potatoes and turnips.
While a farmhouse built in the 1920s doesn’t normally generate much romantic nostalgia, we need to look at the time period that this house – and knife – represents. This was the time of the Great Depression; an era when a great many Americans were out of work and the lines at soup kitchens stretched for blocks. America was at its lowest.
Families in the 1920s, particularly rural families, had to make do with what they had. There was no jumping in the car and heading to the store when you needed something. There was no such thing as “extra money”, unemployment or welfare checks. If something broke, you fixed it. If you needed a tool, you made it. When your family’s very lives depended on what you could harvest from the land, you needed to be creative.
In this particular case a large sturdy knife was needed to dispatch chickens and other fowl, as well as butchering and cutting meat. There was a need and the tool was made.
This knife became a special project and was more than just a sharpening job. My goal was to bring this knife back to working condition, while at the same time preserving the history, and honoring the people who made it. The dirt and grime that comes with age and use needed to be preserved. For that reason, all of the work would be done by hand.
My implements would be stainless-steel wool scrub pads, 100-200 grit sandpaper and various sharpening stones.
Step 1: Remove the Rust
Seeing that this knife had been left in the walls of the home for so many years and not exposed to the elements, most of the rust was just surface rust that could be removed using the stainless-steel pads. There were some areas where the rust was a bit deeper, especially near the handle. Knowing from experience, this area is where blood tends to gather and thus would account for the rust. In these areas I carefully used the sandpaper.
If this had been a blade of great historical importance, I never would have used sandpaper. No matter how fine the sandpaper is, it will always leave marks. In this case, where the blade was historically a working knife, the minor scratches left by the sandpaper would have no negative effect.
My first step was to really see how deep the rust went. I worked the steel pad over the entire length of the blade, from hilt to tip. My first assumption was correct; it was mostly surface rust, with deeper pockets near the hilt.
I moved on to 200 grit sandpaper. The larger the number the smaller the grit and the smaller the scratches. Normally I like to run the paper lengthwise down the blade, but because of the location of the rust, that was not going to be possible. The 200 grit took care of most of the heavy rust, though it did leave some scratches in the process. I decided not to use the 100 grit as it would only do more damage to the blade.
From here I turned back to the steel pad. While steel wool works fine, a stainless-steel pad is what I like to use. This is because they hold up better than standard steel wool. An added benefit is that they can be rinsed out after use.
I run the steel pad back and forth along the entire length of the blade. Depending on the amount of rust – even surface rust – and how far you want to go with the restoration, this can be a time intensive task. Thankfully, with this knife, it didn’t take too long.
Step 2: Putting on the Edge
This part was a little more difficult. Upon close inspection it was unclear what kind of bevel was on the edge. It went all over the place, looking like some sort of grinding wheel had been used. For the original owners, the goal was to make it sharp enough to do the job. My goal was to put on some kind of lasting edge, to do this knife justice.
For this task I used a Smith’s Pack Pal Dual Grit Diamond Stone Sharpener. I really like this tool, as it has both a coarse (yellow) side and a fine (orange) side. I started with the coarse side, to put the initial edge on the blade. I had no idea what kind of steel I was working with, so I was really surprised at how quickly the blade took the edge.
Satisfied with the rough edge, I started doing some work with the fine side of the sharpener. It didn’t take long to put a very sharp edge on the blade; one that I was proud of.
As good as the edge was, I wanted to do some finish work on a whetstone. Call me “old school”, but there is just something about doing finish work with an oiled whetstone that makes all the difference. It didn’t take much to make the blade extremely sharp.
Now I was ready to give it back to Stan.
While working on the knife, I made it a point to leave some of the rust on the blade, especially near the handle. Why? Because I figured the rust gave the knife true historical character.
I pretty much left the handle alone, because the wood was full of sweat and grime of times gone past. I like to think that the original owner would be happy with what I did with their knife. K&G
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Dana Benner has been writing about all aspects of the outdoors, survival, history and culture for over 30 years. His work appears in regional and national publications.
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